I started my Korean language journey in 2014. I’d already been exposed to the language for quite a while as I’d been watching Korean dramas and listening to Korean music as early as 2009! Since 2014, I have been studying Korean in various ways: in group settings, through 1-to-1 tutoring and through self-study. During my journey, I took the TOPIK exam twice (in 2016 and 2019) and I will take it again this year (2021). In this blog post, I will tell you my tips and tricks, provide helpful resources and share my views on the pros and cons of language level tests.
The Limits of Language Level Tests
It may seem counterintuitive to this post, but I think it’s important to realize that language level tests are not perfect indicators of your actual abilities. The TOPIK exam is no exception. Different language level tests have different ways of assessing your skills. Some exams merely test reading and listening– like the JLPT. Others test all four skills, like the French DELF which tests speaking, listening, writing and reading. And while it’s likely that your passive skills are stronger than your active skills, language tests do not provide separate scores for specific test sections. Some people might get an overall B2 score while they in fact still at a B1 level – and vice versa.
The TOPIK exam is somewhere in-between the JLPT and DELF, as it tests your writing, listening and reading skills. (On that note: it is very likely that TOPIK will include a speaking test from 2023.)
Some people may take a very ‘’exam-based’’ approach to the exam – cramming as much vocabulary and grammar as possible just for the sake of passing, but without really grasping the concepts they are studying. Consequently, some exam takers may get a high score because they simply have been cramming advanced materials, yet in real life they might still struggle with more basic stuff! The opposite can be true, too. There are plenty of other factors that can influence your exam score as well, such as how well you slept the night before, the test environment and the topic of the writing section.
Journey vs. Destination Mindset
In light of all the ways testing falls short of reflecting a student’s true aptitude, my personal stance on language level tests is that you shouldn’t take the test results too seriously. Take the language learning journey seriously instead. Adapt a journey mindset rather than a destination mindset. Focus less on the aim and more on the mindset, actions, and efforts that you need to make progress. In this way, a language exam can be that driving force that keeps you going. If you make it a priority to study your target language regularly or even every day, you cultivate habits that will help you master the language. Ultimately, your skills will undoubtedly improve, even if you aren’t able to demonstrate it in the context of a standardized test.
With that being said, I personally do think that language level tests have been valuable for tracking my own personal progress in the language. I took the TOPIK in 2016 and in 2019. In 2016, I got a level 4 (B2 / high intermediate) certificate, whereas in 2019, I managed to get a level 5 (C1 / low advanced) certificate. My Korean classes ended in 2016 and in the last couple of years I have mostly done self-study. It was very encouraging to know that I was able to still keep up and improve my skills in Korean by self-studying. Every now and then, I like to reflect on my long term progress to remind myself that my efforts have not, and will never, be in vain. Effort will never betray you.
For the upcoming exam, my aim is to get a level 5 certificate – again. I know that might sound a bit counterintuitive. You might even wonder what the point of getting the same certificate again. However, a level 5 score on the TOPIK exam can be anything between 190 to 220 points. Since my previous score was 195, I see anything above that as progress. Besides, it takes a lot of time and effort to maintain a C1 level.
What You Need to Know About TOPIK
Let’s delve into the exam format, tips and tricks and helpful resources for TOPIK. The TOPIK 2 exam has three sections (unlike TOPIK 1 which only tests listening and reading). The listening section is 60 minutes long, the writing section takes 50 minutes and the reading section is 70 minutes, as displayed below:
- As you proceed, the questions will gradually become more difficult. This is because the TOPIK 2 tests quite a wide range of language levels – from B1 all the way to C2. Keep this in mind and use this to your advantage. Take mock exams to familiarize yourself with the questions and, even more important, so that you know what you can and cannot do. For example, while taking mock exams, you might notice that you can make it to question 30 in the reading section – out of 50. Since the exam assesses such a wide range of levels, having a thoroughly considered exam strategy is very important!
- Make separate goals for all three sections based on your mock exam results. Since you cannot really evaluate your own writing, you may want to get the help from a professional tutor (see the writing section below).
- Time management is important – especially for the writing section. Keep track of time while you take mock exams and stick to it as if you were taking the exam for real.
The Complete Guide to TOPIK is a must-have if you’re planning to take this exam. It provides a ton of mock exams – including audio files – and study material for intermediate and advanced learners, including onomatopoeia, proverbs and 사자성어 (4 character idioms).
Resources for Writing
Generally, out of the three tested language skills, TOPIK test takers tend to get their lowest score on the writing section and that point gap is usually quite large. As you may have seen from my test results, I am no exception. Do not let this fact discourage you, though! Preparation is half the battle. The writing section consists of four questions: writing practical sentences (question 51), writing descriptive sentences (question 52), writing a paragraph describing data (question 53) and writing an essay on a given topic (question 54).
For the writing section, I highly recommend the Cracking the TOPIK 2 Writing book. This book will help you get familiar with the different kinds of questions that appear in the writing section and how your answers will be graded. The writing guide elaborates on high-score strategies for each type of questions in detail along with step-by-step explanations. The guide provides useful grammar and vocabulary so that you know exactly what to do to crack the writing section.
Additionally, you might want to get professional feedback on your writing from a certified Korean language tutor. Personally, I would absolutely recommend the Speaking & Writing classes that I did with Jess Kim on iTalki. Also, many Korean language learners in the online language learning community found 정쌤 (Korean Teacher Yujin)’s TOPIK writing classes and YouTube videos to be very helpful.
Resources for Listening and Reading
When it comes to listening and reading: immersion is your best friend! Apart from taking mock exams, try to get as much listening and reading practice done as you can – preferably daily.
Learn your favorite song’s lyrics by heart. Use the language extension when you watch Korean dramas on Netflix. Try to watch your favorite Korean entertainment show without English subtitles.
One of my favorite sources for listening practice is SpongeMind TV, and the Spongemind podcast on Spotify – a bilingual podcast. The podcasts are recorded in both Korean and English and you can request transcripts and translations for free by email. I also highly recommend Naver’s Audioclip platform. These podcasts are made for a Korean audience, but you can find podcasts on plenty of topics – for free! Audioclip also comes with a free app available for both Android and IOS users. Another great option for listening are the podcasts by TTMIK which have a wide range of content available for all language levels, not just high intermediate and advanced.
Reading is a hobby of mine that I love to combine with language learning. I’d like to encourage you to do the same. Find Korean articles about topics that fascinate you. For example, I’ve been reading many psychology-related articles in Korean. If you’re looking for interesting reads about Korean culture, society and history, I highly recommend the 문화가 있는 한국어 books. They are written in a very engaging way, with a global audience in mind. With these books, you get to expand your Korean vocabulary and cultural knowledge simultaneously – a win-win. The 문화가 있는 한국어 books are on par with the TOPIK levels, ranging from level 1 to level 6, and are available on Google Books.
Are you planning to take the TOPIK exam or another language level exam this year? What is your view on taking language tests? We’d love to hear about your language goals and views! Get in touch with us on Instagram (@gladlyglobal_).
Personal note from the author: I’m always in for a chat regarding Korean, a language very close to my heart. You can find me on Instagram (@janine.journals) and in the Gladly Global Discord Server.